Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).
Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.
Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.” RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.
When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger. Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.
Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.
Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.